WHO Accused of Relenting to Alcohol Lobby in Action Plan to Battle ‘Harmful Use’ and Risks of Noncommunicable Disease
Zsuzsanna Jakab

Only 14 countries are on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by one third by 2030, the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed at its executive board meeting on Wednesday.

After listening for over three hours to countries’ views on the WHO roadmap 2023–2030 to prevent and control NCDs, WHO Deputy Director-General Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, warned that countries had less than 10 years to meet targets.

The agenda item on NCDs was especially onerous as member countries had to consider a political declaration, that included the roadmap, plus 11 annexures – including one on curbing alcohol consumption.

Alcohol lobby exerted undue influence on WHO draft global action plan – critics charge

Last week, the Foundation for Alcohol and Research Education (Fare) accused the WHO of watering down proposals to contain alcohol consumption despite two years of negotiations.

The WHO’s draft Action Plan to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol (2022-2030) has been revised in response to lobbying by alcohol companies to water down key provisions, according to the Fare analysis.

The analysis compared the first WHO working document with the final draft of the global action plan being presented to the EB this week.

Critical changes introduced include reduced emphasis on policies that target the pricing, availability and promotion of alcohol products to moderate consumption – all reflecting the fingerprints of alcohol industry influence, Fare charged.

Last week, another Fare-commissioned report prepared by the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University, Australia, described how alcohol companies had worked to undermine the draft action plan, in the two year period since the WHO’s Executive Board first recommended accelerated action” against alcohol harm.   

Unhealthy environments

Aside from the focus on alcohol, a number of member states and NGOs made calls for countries to step up action on “unhealthy environments” that are the norm in many polluted, traffic clogged cities, as well as “commercial” risk factors, like the proliferation of junk food and tobacco promotion, which together contribute to unhealthy lifestyles and the development of NCDs. 

Such risks are highlighted in a draft WHO Road Map (2023-2030) for implementing a Global Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable diseases, under consideration by the EB. 

A new WHO “implementation framework” for improving the health and well-being of 1 billion people by 2030 also targets a wide range of risks and prevention opportunities – from promoting clean and active transport to healthier and more sustainable food systems – which in turn can blunt rising antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as well as food safety risks associated with the emergence of new pathogens and pandemics. 

Slovenia’s Kerstin Petrič

Slovenia’s Kerstin Petrič lamented the lack of member state investment in primary NCD prevention, addressing key risk factors. 

“More cost-effective measures such as rising taxes, bans on advertising and limiting access to for example tobacco, alcohol, transfats and sugar are difficult to adopt due to aggressive lobbying of industry and despite the bulk of evidence that these measures work, particularly in the most vulnerable population,” Petrič noted.

“This is the case in my country, and I believe in many other countries. Many lives could be saved if there would not be constant wavering in our member states between business opportunities and health,” she added, appealing to the WHO to “provide appropriate recommendations, including economic calculations, to generate support for public measures in political discussions”. 

Latin American countries, many of which have made substantial progress in addressing junk food consumption that is fueling NCDs including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Argentina told board members about its “healthy environments programme” that included  establishing smoke-free workplaces, and raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol, safe water and the importance of healthy eating and physical activity. 

Argentina has implemented front-of-package labelling on ultra-processed food that contain excessive sugars and saturated fats. 

Conflict-of-interest guidelines

Colombia also stressed health promotion strategies, including collaboration with civil society and academics, as “a vital aspect of prevention of NCDs”,  which should also include addressing  unhealthy environments that in turn create obstacles to healthy lifestyles. 

Meanwhile, Uruguay welcomed the proposed specific targets to respond to diabetes in the prevention and treatment of obesity. 

“We would once again ask the secretariat to give member state clear guidelines on the prevention of conflict of interest in the development of public policies and carry out all necessary efforts to support countries, particularly low and middle-income countries to get the necessary resources for NCD control and monitoring systems,” said Uruguay.

Meanwhile, the US appealed for stronger clauses to address air pollution.

“We would like to see the roadmap provide a more robust response related to air pollution,” said US delegate Loyce Pace. She added that mental health should also receive greater focus: 

“As other delegates have said, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound effect on availability of mental health services, including for pregnant women, children and adolescents. Greater focus is needed in expanding coverage of mental health and substance use disorders, services delivered via telehealth and similar mechanisms to help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.” said Pace.

The Executive Board will continue to discuss NCDs on Thursday, as it struggles to catch up with its backlogged agenda.

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